COVID-19 and Women’s Health

September 1, 2020

Global Health Center Collaborates to Present Symposium on Women and COVID-19

By Kim Furlow, Institute for Public Health

The Global Health Center at the Institute for Public Health and the Center for Women’s Infectious Disease Research at Washington University are gearing up for a unique, virtual symposium focusing on women and COVID-19.

The September 11 event features internationally-recognized speakers on the front line of basic science and global health, who will discuss the latest cutting-edge research into COVID-19 pathogenesis at the cellular and molecular levels, gender differences in COVID-19 pathogenesis, current therapies, and how COVID-19 has affected women’s health in our local and global communities.

The symposium is open to registered participants from the general public, basic scientists interested in SARS CoV-2 pathogenesis, and global and public health professionals interested in learning about the impact of COVID-19 on women’s lives.

Recently, we spoke with several of the symposium’s future guest speakers about symposium topics and why it is important to attend:

Christina Stallings, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of Molecular Microbiology; Director, Molecular Microbiology and Microbial Pathogenesis Graduate Program; Center for Women’s Infectious Disease Research, Washington University School of Medicine

Q: What important information will the symposium offer?
A: The symposium will provide an update on the latest breakthroughs in research related to COVID-19 and a global perspective of the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives.

Q: As moderator of the symposium, why do you think it is important for people to attend? 
A: COVID-19 is affecting all of our lives and there is so much information passed around, it is hard to know what to believe. This symposium will bring together leaders in research focused on studying the SARS-CoV-2 virus to present the newest data as well as breakthroughs in diagnostics, treatments and vaccines. The symposium will highlight public health experts who will provide the most up-to-date information on how the pandemic is affecting the global community and what we can do to help those who are most affected by COVID-19. This is a time when we must all come together and fight this pandemic as a global community. We must make decisions supported by the scientific data. We have to learn from this pandemic and be better prepared for the future. This symposium will provide the perspective necessary to move forward together in a positive direction.

Q: During the COVID-19 pandemic, what in your opinion, has been the biggest impact to women’s health?
A: I think the biggest impact the pandemic has had on women relates to their societal role as caretakers. Women are more burdened with taking care of their families and others around them. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of the resources that provide support for families such as in-person school and daycares, are not available. In STEM fields, there is already a disproportionately low number of women in leadership positions, and if we don’t do something to help mitigate the damage COVID-19 is having on gender equality in the workforce, we will move backwards on this issue instead of forward.

 Scott Hultgren, PhD
Helen L. Stoever Professor of Molecular Microbiology; Director, Center for Women’s Infectious Disease Research, Washington University School of Medicine

Q: In your role as Director for the Center for Women’s Infectious Disease Research, how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work? 
A: It is the worst and most unimagined obstacle to our research program that I have ever experienced. It is particularly difficult for the brilliant investigators in my lab, including the students, postdoctoral fellows and staff. My lab is a launching pad to their subsequent careers. They have risen above the pandemic finding creative ways to pursue their dreams including writing papers and grants, many of which have already been accepted or awarded.  It is a testament to the dedication that our young researchers have to improving global health. They will not be denied.

Q: What impact do YOU feel the pandemic has had on women’s health in the STL region? In the world?
A: It has been most brutal on the less privileged, which is a crisis unto its own. As with everything, women tend to absorb the brunt of the impact that health and social pandemics have on society, as they are often most responsible at home with the family. Compounding this unbalanced problem, is the lack of successful strategies by Universities to adapt to this reality. It is a complicated problem but very real. We have women researchers on the front lines leading the world in scientific advances for the fight against COVID. I find this inspiring and we should lean on these successful scientists for advice to our future scientists.

Q: Relative to the various symposium topics to be presented, what can the audience expect to learn? 
A: The world-renowned scientists that will be speaking at this conference are roughly 50-50 men-women, so the audience will also get to hear from women who are world-leading COVID-19 researchers and how they have manage to balance their work/life relationships.

Michael Caparon, PhD
Professor, Department of Molecular Microbiology, Washington University School of Medicine

Q: In helping organize the symposium, what are the most important audience “take-aways” you hope to achieve?
A: One of the reasons we founded the Center for Women’s Infectious Disease Research at Washington University was that it was becoming increasingly apparent that gender differences in infectious disease was often a secondary consideration in the design of research studies. However, it has more apparent that gender differences can be significant, particularly when it comes to how gender impacts treatment for infectious disease. In fact, the National Institutes of Health now requires every research proposal to consider how possible gender differences will be addressed in any study design. This was a motivation for organizing this symposium on women’s health and COVID-19. Initial reports have indicated a differential severity in disease and risk of death between men and women. Thus, understanding why women may have less severe disease and a lower risk of death is an important question.

We are at an early stage of understanding how SARS-CoV2 causes disease and of vaccine trials, so, understanding gender differences may provide important insights into how the virus causes disease and how the body responds to the infection and how this may influence the effectiveness of vaccination. The symposium will provide a forum for researchers on the front line of COVID-19 research to not only present their current cutting-edge research advances, but to also have them discuss what questions we should be asking for how gender differences impact this disease, and to guide further research and treatment strategies.

In addition, gender differences in infectious disease do not just affect biology, but also society. In this symposium we have included speakers who will discuss the social impact of COVID-19 on women, not just in our local communities, but also from a global perspective.

Since COVID-19 has been such a major event for all of us, we have generally not had room to hear how COVID-19 has impacted our global communities. What can we learn from these experiences that will be relevant to how we approach COVID-19 in our communities and what can we learn that will help us develop treatment strategies that will be effective for other countries and cultures?  Finally, a very important take-away will be what have we learned from our COVID-19 experiences that will help prepare for the next pandemic. We have assembled a panel of leading scientists to consider this very question.

Q: In order to give an example of symposium content, briefly define/discuss the concept of “gender differences in COVID-19 pathogenesis”
A: Simply put, gender differences in COVID-19 pathogenesis refers to a differential outcome in how one’s life is affected by COVID-19 based on one’s gender. Examples include: how sick someone becomes, how likely they are to die from the infection, or how their quality of life may be disrupted by COVID-19 infection. Both biological and sociological factors may contribute to gender differences. For biology, how the male and female body may respond differently to SARS-CoV2 infection, or may respond differently to vaccination or other treatments for infection may be affected by gender. For sociology, factors such as employment may be important. For example, jobs that are over-represented by one gender that may have an increased risk for exposure to the virus. A combination of social and biological factors may be important, such as gender-associated co-morbidities that make one more susceptible to infection by SARS-CoV2. Understanding all of these factors will be important for our ability to effectively employ treatments to combat this virus.

COVID-19: Scientific Advances and its Impact on Women’s Health Symposium (Online)

September 11, 2020 | 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

REGISTER and read more.